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A leitmotif (pronounced /ˌlaɪtmoʊˈtiːf/) (also leitmotiv; lit. "leading motif") is a recurring musical theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea. The word has also been used by extension to mean any sort of recurring theme, whether in music, literature, or the life of a fictional character or a real person.

Although usually a short melody, it can also be a chord progression or even a simple rhythm. Leitmotifs can help to bind a work together into a coherent whole, and also enable the composer to relate a story without the use of words, or to add an extra level to an already present story.

The word is usually used when talking about dramatic works, especially operas, although leitmotifs are also used in other musical genres, such as instrumental pieces, cinema, and video game music.

The word itself has a mixed etymology, as a further meaning to the German word Motiv was borrowed in the 18th century from the French motif, meaning "motive" or "theme", while the German word Motiv itself can be traced back to the 16th century, meaning only "motive" (cf. Latin motivus). Prefixing it with leit- (coming from the German leiten, "to lead"), produces Leitmotiv (German plural: Leitmotive), meaning "leading motif".


[edit] Usage in classical music

The use of characteristic, short, recurring motives in orchestral music can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. In French opera of this period (such as the works of Grétry and Méhul) "reminiscence motifs" can be identified, which may recur at a significant juncture in the plot to establish an association with earlier events. Their use is however not extensive or systematic. The power of the technique was exploited early in the nineteenth century by composers of Romantic opera, such as Carl Maria von Weber . Indeed, the first use of the word "leitmotif" in print was by the critic F. W. Jähns in describing Weber's work, although this was not until 1871. Motives were also important in purely instrumental music of the time: the most famous example is the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, whose central motif was said by Beethoven's friend and biographer Schindler to represent "fate knocking at the door". The related idea of the idée fixe was coined by Hector Berlioz in reference to his Symphonie Fantastique, a purely instrumental work that has a recurring melody representing the love of the central characters.

It is Richard Wagner, however, who is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen, uses dozens of leitmotifs, often relating to specific characters, things, or situations. While some of these leitmotifs occur in only one of the operas, many occur throughout the entire cycle. Some controversy surrounded the use of the word in Wagner's own circle: Wagner never authorised the use of the word "leitmotiv", using words such as "Grundthema" (basic idea), or simply "Motiv", instead. The word was disputed because of its early association with the overly literal interpretations of Wagner's music by Hans von Wolzogen, who in 1876 published a "Leitfaden" (guide or manual) to the "Ring". In it he isolated and named all of the recurring motives in the cycle (the motive of "Servitude", the "Spear" or "Treaty" motive, etc), often leading to absurdities or contradictions with Wagner's actual practice. The resulting list of leitmotives attracted the ridicule of anti-Wagnerian critics and composers (such as Eduard Hanslick, Claude Debussy, or Igor Stravinsky). They identified it with Wagner's own approach to composing, and mocked the impression of a musical "address book" or list of "cloakroom numbers" it created. In fact Wagner himself never publicly named any of his leitmotives, preferring to emphasise their flexibility of association, role in the musical form, and emotional effect. The practice of naming leitmotives nevertheless continued in popularity throughout the last century, for instance in the work of prominent Wagnerian critics Ernest Newman and Deryck Cooke.

Since Wagner, the use of leitmotifs has been taken up by many other composers. Richard Strauss used the device in many of his operas and several of his symphonic poems. Despite being otherwise opposed to Wagner, Claude Debussy relied on leitmotifs in his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. The Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev made heavy use of leitmotifs in his work Peter and the Wolf, a musical story with narration; in it, each character is represented by a specific instrument in the orchestra, as well as an associated melodic theme. Other notable examples of leitmotifs are Aida's theme in Verdi's Aida and Scarpia's theme in Puccini's Tosca. Edgard Varèse reintroduced the idée fixe in his early orchestral works, notably Amériques and Arcana. Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony also uses leitmotifs, the main one featuring in every movement.

[edit] Movies, television, and video games

Leitmotifs are very common in movie scores; a well known example is the Star Wars Imperial March associated with Darth Vader in the Star Wars series of films and the Superman theme from modern film, both composed by John Williams, or the alternating "E" and "F" key sequence from the "Jaws" film series. Sometimes, a leitmotif of a main character is the same as the theme music of the movie or TV show.

Other examples of leitmotifs used in movies and television include:

  • In Fritz Lang's M, the child-murderer Hans Beckert whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Edward Grieg. This serves as an ominous note in the score throughout the film.
  • In the Friday the 13th film series, Harry Manfredini implemented a vocal effect to indicate the presence of the killer. While watching a rough cut of the original Friday the 13th, and while contemplating a leitmotif for the picture, the line "Kill her, mommy", entranced Manfredini. He distilled the line down to "kill mom", and then truncated it even further into "ki" and "ma." He then spoke each syllable a single time into an Echoplex, creating the signature "ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma" motif that went on to be used in each subsequent sequel.[1][2]
  • In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV series, the song "Close Your Eyes" by Christophe Beck appeared throughout Seasons 2 and 3 of Buffy and Season 1 of Angel whenever the title characters, Buffy and Angel, were in a deeply emotional scene. It was used to such an extent that it become known to fans as "The Buffy / Angel love song" [3].
  • Likewise, in the video game Metal Gear Solid 2, when certain characters appear on the screen, a small piece of music would play. If one were to figure this out, it is a key point to the storyline as the music essentially reveals that a disguised character is one from earlier in the game.
  • In the television show Scrubs, a certain piano melody plays during emotional moments or when the main character J.D. learns a lesson.

[edit] Popular music

An early use of leitmotifs in rock music is found in Tommy, the "rock opera" performed by The Who and written, for the most part, by the band's principal songwriter Pete Townshend in 1969. Townshend intentionally used four leitmotifs in The Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia to represent the four personalities of the album's fictional protagonist, Jimmy Cooper, a British youth with a multiple personality disorder. The four leitmotifs are also meant to represent the four members of The Who.

American composer and musician Frank Zappa used a recurring theme throughout the album Uncle Meat by him and his band The Mothers of Invention, the 'Uncle Meat Main Theme' is first played in its entirety but then is played several other times throughout the album, most notably in 'The Uncle Meat Variations'.

It is not unusual for one, or many more leitmotifs to be used in concept albums as they typically relate to one person, one event, one phase in time or one location, and this is especially common within the progressive rock/metal genre. Examples of progressive albums especially notable for their use of leitmotifs include Snow by Spock's Beard, BE by Pain of Salvation, One and Testimony by Neal Morse, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, Room V by Shadow Gallery, Still Life by Opeth, and Anima by Spheric Universe Experience.

Mike Oldfield often uses leitmotifs on his albums, in some cases even returning to the same themes used in one piece on another work not on the same album. One notable example of this is a theme from Amarok which is heard throughout that album, turning up again as the basis for the track "Let There Be Light" on The Songs of Distant Earth.

[edit] Literature and drama

Leitmotif is also used in the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce (chapter 11). Critics argue that there are recurring themes of music that begin at the beginning of the chapter and continue throughout the rest of the chapter, and also the book.

The "leitmotif" is also present in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The themes of the Virgin Mary, the Greek myth of Stephen's namesake, Daedalus, are some of the more noticeable leitmotifs throughout the work. The leitmotif in this novel provides unity as the character of Stephen matures.

Other writers who have used the technique include Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Mann, and Julian Barnes in his 1989 novel A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Contemporary author Chuck Palahniuk also commonly utilizes leitmotifs in his work.

Leitmotif in literature also refers to the repeated representation of certain themes or emotions throughout a book, play, or other literary works. In literature, a Leitmotif is used as a recurring event, object or even a character that the story always makes reference to. In works with counterpoint, leitmotifs can become a figure of analysis in which the different stories constantly/eventually lead to.

Samuel Beckett, James Joyce's ex-secretary, uses leitmotifs throughout his body of works, within his use of language in his plays and works of fiction. Beckett uses repetition a great deal and explores complex sentence structures, where he chooses to cut short a statement before its presumed conclusion, or the opposite can be the case with a stream of words running into each other with, in some cases no coherence, in others complete lucidity. Beckett uses "voices" as musical instruments travelling through the (specific) combined, language structure, repetitions and a gamut of emotions displayed in the text that cause changes in pitch and tone, unless the playwright has chosen a monotonous speech pattern as he does for particular characters in his plays.

[edit] Advertising and branding

Leitmotifs are used within advertising more commonly than ever before - most noticeably and notably by McDonald's participatory whistled motif that commands the secondary part (sung formerly and first by Justin Timberlake to launch the new 'I'm Lovin' It' campaign) of itself from the consumer. The subsequent part of the motif was intentionally omitted after an initial amount of exposure to invite consumer participation/reciprocation to complete or finish it off.

Other leitmotifs are used in conjunction with such brands as Intel, Herbal Essences and Danone.

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